Decisions on the trial of vaccines invented by Indian, Chinese, even Bangladeshi scientists were put on hold by Bangladesh Medical Research Council (BMRC) for months. It had set a bad example in the international community. On the other hand, the country's scientists have been deprived of the opportunity to acquire knowledge from vaccine research.
According to the observers, Bangladesh had given more importance to diplomacy in the process of vaccine selection. Instead of depending on the data about the effectiveness, safety issues and availability of vaccines, Bangladesh relied on its allies. Concerned officials could not understand how there could be trade conflicts over vaccine production and raw materials.
The supply of vaccines has been limited as compared to the huge demand. In such a situation, Bangladesh had been depending on a single source. Bangladesh was solely dependent on the vaccines purchased from India and vaccines from the COVAX initiative as its only source. There is no evidence that Bangladesh had effectively explored an alternative source.
History shows us that the river Ganges first quenches the thirst of the people of India, then Bangladesh. For the same reason, India does not want to share the water of the Teesta river. The same excuse has been applied for vaccines too.
Public health experts and scientists say vaccines have three main functions: reducing the casualties, decreasing the severity of symptoms and containing the transmission. The statistics on coronavirus related casualties shows that people aged 50 or over 50 are at higher risk of death. But the government has reduced the age limit for vaccination to 40 years. As a result, people with least risk are getting vaccinated now. This has increased the risk of senior citizens not getting vaccinated.
From the beginning of vaccine innovation and production, there was talk of ensuring a fair global distribution of vaccines. It was said that there should be no discrimination on the basis of rural and urban areas, financial status, gender and literacy. The government has not yet given any assurance that such discrimination is not being observed in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has a strong health infrastructure and a tradition of vaccinations. Bangladesh is capable of vaccinating as many as 700,000 people in a day. However, Bangladesh does not have enough vaccines. Bangladesh has been able to efficiently apply the limited amount of vaccine the country has received. The health department has also been praised for this.
However, there is still time. Bangladesh can move forward with short, medium and long term plans. The first step is to ensure the second dose for each of the persons who took the first dose of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The second dose of coronavirus for a little over 1.3 million people has become uncertain. If it is not possible to procure vaccines from India, it is necessary to try to purchase it from the countries where there is a surplus of vaccine.
Despite delay, the government has approved the use of vaccines from Russia and China for emergency purposes. Now, all the possible initiatives to procure more of these vaccines should go uninterrupted. Without wasting time, initiatives should also be taken to produce these vaccines in the country. The government does not have any vaccine producing facility. Three private companies in the country are capable of producing vaccines. The government should support these private companies to develop their capacity In this case, attention should be paid to ensure no delay in the processes such as technology transfer.
The vaccine selection alone is not the solution to the problem. As soon as information about a new variant of coronavirus is available, people start to doubt whether the newly invented vaccine would be effective on the new variant or not. Several institutions in the country are working on the genome sequencing of coronavirus. However, there is no communication and coordination among them.
In this case, professor Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the Pharmacology Department at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), suggests a national task force and a national molecular surveillance plan. One of these two bodies will keep a track of the ongoing vaccine research in different parts of the world and its progress. The other will monitor whether there is any change in the virus in the country. Together they will decide which vaccine would be effective for Bangladesh.
On 17 May 2011, prime minister Sheikh Hasina and US based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s co-chairman Bill Gates addressed the same stage during the World Health Conference at the headquarters of the World Health Organization. Bill Gates mainly talked about vaccines. He said vaccines are a top elite technology. He also praised India’s Serum Institute for producing a substantial amount of vaccine at a low cost.
Amid coronavirus pandemic, the Gates Foundation has provided the Serum Institute with a substantial amount of financial aid. In 2007, experts of this Serum Institute advised the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) of Bangladesh to convert the Public Health Institute into a modern vaccine producing facility. The government should also seek assistance from organisations such as Gates Foundation and Serum Institute.
*This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu